Martz stands by his return man

Friday, December 17, 2004

ST. LOUIS -- Statistically, Sean McDonald of the St. Louis Rams is the worst punt returner in the NFC. For two weeks now, coach Mike Martz has been saying it's not the second-year player's fault.

Last week Martz said McDonald would be "squawking like a chicken" waiting for the ball because of the Rams' poor blocking, and this week he said it again, complaining that without better support he'll get "splattered."

So, of all the areas in need of attention for a 6-7 team hanging onto hopes of a playoff berth, McDonald apparently isn't one of them despite his feeble 4-yard average.

"Somebody asked here the other week about changing punt returners," Martz said. "How'd you like to stand back there and catch a punt?

"Ain't nobody blocking nobody there, there just isn't."

McDonald, a wide receiver who's fourth on the team with 32 receptions, also was responsible for one of the Rams' whopping seven turnovers in last week's 20-7 loss to the Panthers when he fumbled a punt -- the other six were interceptions thrown by backup quarterback Chris Chandler. McDonald was absolved for his mistake, also, because the Panthers didn't give him any room to make a fair catch.

Martz was incensed during the game and in the days to follow that Carolina wasn't penalized for interfering given that one player swerved at the last second to avoid hitting McDonald and missed him by inches. Martz said the official responsible for the play had said he didn't have a good angle to make a judgment, but that because the player hadn't made contact the turnover stood.

Contact is not required to prompt a penalty.

"So, I should probably bone up on the rule," Martz said sarcastically.

McDonald appeared to flinch just before bobbling the ball.

"I had to reach out for the ball," he said. "I guess I've just got to run into him and take the penalty, I've got to learn from that and move on."

McDonald is quick enough and elusive enough for the job, and he had a 39-yard return earlier in the season. He's emerged as a receiving threat, too, with a 13.6-yard average and three touchdowns, including the game-winner in overtime at Seattle earlier in the season.

But too often, whether because of a lack of blocking or his own indecisiveness or a combination of the two, he's done a lot of backtracking before heading up field on his returns.

"It probably falls on all 11 of us," McDonald said. "I'm pretty sure there's times I messed up and other times when other guys have messed up.

"We've just got to get it all together as a team."

Martz said the biggest problem is dealing with the so-called gunners, players who line up on the outside and are usually the first to the ball despite double-team blocking. The Rams are spending more time in practice this week working on holding the gunners at bay.

"That's an issue of great concern for me," Martz said. "If we have to change people on the outside to get it done, we will. It's not fair to ask him to return the ball like that with no help because he's just going to get splattered."

McDonald concedes it's getting into his head.

"We haven't had too many chances lately to really get one going," he said. "Those gunners can be real disruptive if they get down and get in your face."

Improvements in the return game on Sunday at Arizona would be doubly special for McDonald, since he's from Phoenix and went to Arizona State. He'll be playing on his college field, Sun Devil Stadium.

"I'm getting anxious to make a play," McDonald said. "You want to make plays. That's why they put you back there."

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